I know Steven
Spielberg and George Lucas don't owe me a thing. My
matinee money over the years has made Steven & George
very, very, very rich men. Although some of their movies
run on "Spielberg/Lucas Autopilot," they're incredible
I've loved the "Indiana Jones" films, for better or for worse, since seeing "Raiders" in 1981 as a wide-eyed 13 year-old punk with glasses. Like Indy, I'm a little bit older and maybe more mellow now. As I hit my 40s, movies no longer wow me like they once did. But I still marvel at some movies and I still get excited about seeing them. "Indy 4" is a perfect example of this. I was very excited to see it, and I went in with an open mind.
As I write this semi-review on "Indy 4," I write it with such respect and admiration for both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. My god, they're heroes of mine since childhood. But even the great ones can have a hiccup, or create something that misfires so badly, you wonder if they were really paying attention to their target audience.
I've had time to digest what I saw in "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull," and it isn't settling well. I can't help but to feel let down by Indy's latest adventure. What I write here may bar me from ever going to Skywalker Ranch, or getting invited to Amblin Entertainment. But my feeling about watching "Crystal Skull" comes from a bit of frustration. My reaction to this movie is equivalent to buying a Coke. You know you're getting that same great taste and quality you've known almost all of your life. You've come to trust the brand and the people behind it. You pop the top and as you drink it, you grimace and realize that this drink doesn't quite taste the same as you remember. In fact, it's almost entirely different now. It tastes diluted and the fizzy bubbles don't tickle your nose anymore. It's flat. You've just bought New Coke, not Classic Coke, and you don't like it.
I watched "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" during a 10:30 a.m. showing on opening day. There were about 30 other people in the 500-seat auditorium with me. After sitting though a barrage of previews, the movie began with the Paramount logo dissolving into a prairie dog hill. Nice touch. The opening sequence pulsated with Spielberg's technical perfection. The kids racing the Russians gave me the sense that something bad was going to happen to them. Nothing did, and the Russians would decide to kill some other people instead. Still, the sequence seemed right. I couldn't wait for the anticipated arrival of Indy, kicking butt and asking no questions.
When he finally shows up, Indy appears tired. Fatigued. Maybe he even looked bored. This couldn't be right. It took a long time for Indy to get up to speed. And I don't mean just Indy. I know Indy is older. I can buy that. Yet the movie itself seemed slowly plotted during the whole Area 51 scene. It does finally pick up, but it seems like it takes awhile to get there.
As the movie progressed, I shuffled in my seat. I hadn't done that before in an "Indiana Jones." Even "Temple of Doom" kept my interest, no matter how much I disliked most of that movie. I tried focusing on "Crystal Skull" being shown before my eyes. What was wrong here? Maybe it was the projection that threw me off. Yes, that was it. Watching the movie in rather dull and uninspiring digital projection kind of made my eyes tired. No. That wasn't it. There was something about the movie that brought me down. Midway through the film, it clicked. Poor Indiana Jones had officially jumped the shark.
The first thing I noticed was how mellow Harrison Ford is in this film. He has carried each of the "Indiana Jones" movies strongly on his shoulders. Despite plot flaws and occasional weak characters in "Temple of Doom" and "The Last Crusade," Ford was always full of energy and enthusiasm for the role of Indy. Ford is one hell of an actor. "Witness." "The Fugitive." "Raiders." He can be a powerful presence on-screen. In some ways, he's got the traits of tough guys like John Wayne, yet could be powerfully quiet like Gary Cooper. In "Indy 4," Ford has virtually none of the spunk he had in the original trilogy. He plays the action pretty safely. He's almost too cautious. He lets almost everyone else in the film figure out the plot points for him. There's no sense of adventure with Indy anymore, leading me to ask, "Why make the movie in the first place?" In this film, he seems like a facsimile of Indiana Jones. Where's the heart? Where's the sense of confidence? Where's the hero we've looked up to?
The movie literally drags on for a good 45-60 minutes with virtually little action during the middle act. The original three films rarely stopped for plot development and dialogue. Everything was intertwined. Those movies, for the most part, acted like a good roller coaster ride with some scary dips and fast turns with barely a second to catch your breath. Especially with "Raiders," you left the theater breathless and wanting to go back and see it again. You didn't have to rationalize the logic of the movie. It just worked. "Crystal Skull" takes a lot of time trying to explain things in the film when they don't need to be explained. Here was a wonderful premise with the aliens and mysterious happenings, but nothing seems coherent. The script by David Koepp is filled with some excellent scene concepts, but then they're bogged down by too many characters and back story. The dialogue isn't bad, but it's not memorable.
Besides the uneven plot of "Crystal Skull," the characters surrounding Indy aren't very interesting. It's GREAT to see Karen Allen again. She was an incredible love interest and occasional foe to Indy in "Raiders." She had a lot of energy and wouldn't take guff from no one, especially Indiana Jones. I loved her role as Marion. She was every bit important to that film. But in "Crystal Skull," she's given nothing to do. She smiles goofily and argues with Indy for no reason. We get a bogus history from her while she didn't see Jones for years. Most of their scenes together seemed like something out of a bad "Lethal Weapon" movie. There's a short bit between Indy and Marion that totally reminded me of their chemistry in 1981. It's the brief scene in the truck when they're being transported by the Russians. It was a good scene. I had hope that something would happen in the movie here. But then the script called for an unbelievable ending to their relationship (and the movie) and I wanted to yell out, "COP-OUT!" For a moment, my eyes rolled inside my head, just like Toht's did in "Raiders."
Shia LaBeouf is better than what die hard fans would expect. He's always been a good actor. But he feels out of place in this film. I really don't think he was necessary to the plot. I realize that if his character was taken out of the film, there would be no subplot. I'd be fine with that. Indy usually embarked on his adventures with help from his friends, but it was Indy who figured out how things worked. He relies a lot on "Mutt" to figure things out. I get the idea of why Indy does that, but I certainly don't think I'll be lining up to see "Mutt Williams and the Temple of the Lost Hippie." Why not bring back Indy's sidekick, Sallah? He was much more fun than LaBeouf's character of Mutt Williams.
Indy's other major sidekick, Mac (Ray Winstone), is completely unbelievable. Winstone is a fine actor. In fact, nearly everyone in this film comes from a dynamic acting background. But I doubt if Indy would hang around this guy, especially when he calls Indy, "Jonesy." That would annoy me. The entire background of their supposed adventures doesn't wash. They seem incompatible. The addition of John Hurt and Jim Broadbent, fine actors as they are, mean nothing to the plot of this film. Hurt isn't necessary, and Broadbent is there to replace the marvelous Denholm Elliot who played Brody in "Raiders" and "Last Crusade." Broadbent's character feels like a retread of Brody instead of making the character stand out on his own.
The villains in "Indy 4" are not in the same league as those in previous "Indy" adventures. Sure, Cate Blanchett is kind of hot with the bob hairdo, but then she segues from Rrrrrrrrussian into her British accent on occasion. She doesn't scare me as an audience member, nor do I root for her eventual death. She's on-screen villain candy and not much more. Part of the problem is that "Raiders" set the bar on great screen villains for the "Indy" series. Toht and Belloq were brilliant and evil. I guess it's pretty hard to top those villains.
I've read some reviews from "die hard" fans of Indiana Jones accusing Lucas and Spielberg for "raping their childhood" in making this latest movie. I think that's pretty harsh, and pretty immature. Like Lucas has said, it's only a movie and don't get your hopes up too high. He and Steven aren't holding a machete above your neck telling you to give them your $10.00 to see "Indy 4." You don't have to see it. But we've bought into the culture of Lucas and Spielberg for decades now. They're icons on the level of Hitchcock or Ford (John). You go into their movies expecting wonderful things to happen. But they are human, and despite their amazing creative energy, sometimes things don't always pan out as we'd expect them to.
Part of the reason why I've been so critical of this latest "Indy" movie is that like many people around the world, Lucas, Spielberg, Ford and the character of Indiana Jones has become a part of my life. It's no different than following a sports team, or being a fan of a music act. Something about people who entertain you makes a connection. You forge a bond, even if it's in your own mind, with these icons. It's doubtful that the Dallas Cowboys will sit down to dinner with their most die hard fans. It's also doubtful that Lucas and Spielberg will invite me to their picnics in the Hamptons because I love most of their movies. With "Indiana Jones" or "Star Wars," fans have invested not only their money in those franchises, but they've invested a little bit of themselves in them, too. The whole enterprise that comes with the "Indiana Jones" films have become a part of us. We're almost a part of Steven, George and Harrison's family for two hours. Indeed, they're only movies and made to entertain. To each his/her own if they want to get deeper into the cult of Indy. But if the audience has invested a bit of themselves into your work of art, it's not too much to ask for satisfying results. One could argue that the people who put sports teams on the field, or the people who make movies, are multimillionaire/billionaire tycoons who couldn't care less about their audiences. I don't think that's totally the case with the makers of "Indiana Jones." I think Spielberg, especially, loves to please his audience. Just on this adventure, he and the "Indiana Jones" crew took the safe route.
I've read reviews (from normal viewers, not critics) who took issue with everything from the use of computerized visual effects, to John Williams' score, to the monkeys and prairie dogs, to Janusz Kaminski's cinematography. There are a lot of things about the film to nit-pick, but let's be fair. Most of these elements are good, but as whole, they don't add up.
Back when the first "Indy" movies were made, ILM used the some of the most modern technology available to them. Remember, when "Last Crusade" was released, "The Abyss" with its water pod CGI effect hadn't been released yet. So the use of modern effects in "Crystal Skull" was fine by me, though I would've loved to see some horrifying practical effects. The monkey scene in the jungle would've been fine for me if Spielberg left it with Mutt and the monkey staring at each other. That was funny. The whole swinging through the vines was just silly. Mutt's harrowing ride through the jungle wasn't all that wonderful, and enough with the crotch jokes. As for the prairie dogs, they didn't bug me. The "Indy" films have always had humor, and I found them humorous.
Williams' score was pretty and nice, but I can't remember anything new about it. In each of the first three movies, there was a distinct theme and each of them was memorable. Not in this one. I'm not sure if the score was mixed too low, or if the fact that digital sound takes away from the visceral experience (there is a difference between hearing a movie in digital sound versus analog). Either way, I didn't leave the theatre humming.
Kaminski's cinematography is top-notch and very reminiscent of the previous films in many ways. There were some shots in the movie that I thought I was watching vintage 1980s cinematography from any one of the "Indiana Jones" film. He is one excellent DP (director of photography). Yet, as with much of Kaminski's previous work on Spielberg's movies, I felt that his style is rather cold. I'm not sure if it's his lighting style, or his placement of the camera...I'm not sure how to pinpoint it. I can only react to it. His style is excellent, but for whatever reason, it doesn't quite work in "Crystal Skull." Douglas Slocombe's cinematography seemed a little more loose and lighter in tone.
"Crystal Skull," as flat as it is, will cause people die hard fans to debate its merits for years. The same thing happened when Lucas revisited "Star Wars" with mixed results. "Was 'Phantom Menace" really that bad?'" I know I went back to see it a few times just to make sure I wasn't imagining things such as bad story development, annoying characters and stiff acting. Part of me felt that there were moments of brilliance, and then moments of sheer terror that this wasn't the same "Star Wars" I fondly remembered. The same goes for "Crystal Skull." Many "fan boys" have cried foul and bitched at mostly Lucas for ruining their lives. They say, he ruined their memories of the original "Star Wars" movies, now he ruins their lives with "Crystal Skull." Their movie memories have been ruined, not their lives. And I've haven't had the desire to check out "Crystal Skull" again.
The "Star Wars/Indiana Jones" generation has looked up to not only Indiana Jones, but to George and Steven. It was their enthusiasm for making entertaining crowd pleasers that created that "fan boy" base. So when they sneeze, or announce a new movie, we wag our imaginary tails and wait impatiently for their movies to come out. It's easy for a film fan to pick apart the problems one might have with a movie. We're not the ones standing in Spielberg or Lucas' shoes. They really have nothing else to prove to audiences. They've more than made their mark on audiences and the film industry. Perhaps we've elevated Spielberg and Lucas to a higher level and expect too much. We created their mythological status. Lately, though, the re-imagining of both "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" haven't been what they've implanted in our imaginations. These newer movies are different from their predecessors. We're in a nostalgic age. Rock bands that we thought would never get back together have gotten back together. We continue to see old standby movies or television shows being remade for the big screen. Songs are consistently remade. Not much is fresh anymore. Most everything now is comfort food. Perhaps it's time to let go of the past and try new foods.
I'm a geek and I probably thought too much about this after seeing the movie. Time goes on and people (even the "Movie Brats") mellow with maturity. I know I'm a bit older, maybe not more wiser. I know deep inside my being that there is a kid who still cherishes the thought of seeing a new "Indiana Jones" movie. But if you're going to bring back an action hero who is youthful with a sense of adventure and smarts, do it well. "Indy 4" feels like a family reunion, but not the kind of reunion worth attending. I wouldn't go so far as requesting my money back from Lucas and Spielberg. But I sure wish they and the gang of "Indy" would've taken a bit more time to figure out what made Indy tick. I'm probably being too hard on the film. As George would say, or even Harrison Ford would say, it's just a movie and the sun will rise tomorrow like it always has.
Photos: © Lucasfilm/Paramount. All rights reserved.